Administration Committee Inquiry into Parliamentary ICT

In November 2006, I was invited to submit evidence to the House of Commons Administration Commmittee enquiry into the provision of services for Members. I advocated a shift away from the conventional 'corporate' type of system, which typically seeks to enforce commonality on users, in favour of a more flexible Web-based desktop approach, requiring only compatibility, which would give Members the ability to access their information 'any time, any place, anywhere' as that old Martini advert used to say.

The official version of this paper, in the Annex to the Committee report, can be found here and the summary of the discussion when I was invited before the committee is here


Administration Committee Inquiry into Parliamentary ICT

Final Submission, 2006-11-17

Summary

1. In the past 18 months the advent of several new Web technologies and techniques, loosely referred to as “Web 2.0”, has revolutionised the delivery of information services to users via fixed and mobile Web browsers and has the potential to replace many traditional desktop applications and techniques.

2. Web 2.0 has, in little over a year, transformed the way in which users interact with information via the Web in dramatic and positive ways. Many of the services that have been developed so far could either have direct application in the service of Parliament or guide the development of future services. Reliance on traditional desktop and server applications needs to be reconsidered in the light of these new developments, which continue to evolve at a remarkable pace.

3. If the UK Parliament is to have a modern, efficient information system for Members, staff and citizens (“to maximise its internal efficiency and external effectiveness”), which is able to keep pace with rapid change and compare favourably with the best offerings on the Web, the advent of Web 2.0 cannot be ignored. Although it is not a panacea, Web 2.0 can and should have a place in the Parliamentary information strategy.

Contents

• Introduction
• What is Web 2.0?
• Why does Web 2.0 matter?
• Putting it in the Parliamentary context
• The user support issue
• The dilemmas of storage
• Suggestions
• Conclusions
• Notes

Introduction

4. In the past 18 months the advent of several new Web technologies and techniques, loosely referred to as “Web 2.0”, has revolutionised the delivery of information services to users via Web browsers and has the potential to replace many traditional desktop applications and techniques. The even more recent advent of Web 2.0 on mobile platforms is accelerating development and innovation further.

5. Instead of large complex proprietary applications and software suites installed on each PC, which can be hard to configure and maintain, the new lightweight portable Web-based services require only a Web browser with little or no local configuration and generally run equally well on Windows, Mac, Linux and (with some restrictions) on mobile platforms such as PDAs and high-end mobile phones. Companies wanting to serve many millions of users need to be able to engage the widest possible audience.

6. Innovative new companies based on such Web-based services, like Flickr, MySpace and YouTube, have proliferated, gathering millions of users, and hundreds of millions of Dollars of value, in a matter of months. These sites, like so many others of the Web 2.0 generation, depend almost entirely on user-contributed content for their success. Encouraging users to contribute regularly requires appealing, easy to use interfaces.

7. Other sites, like Hi5, Bebo and Orkut, have gathered large numbers of users by creating interactive online communities. Here, users trade the effort expended in entering personal information in return for higher quality matching with potential friends, activity partners and ‘dates’. Users become ‘co-developers’ of the sites.

8. It is important to note that none of these sites provides training or a help desk. How to use the site must be self-evident or intuitive; if not, the site will simply be a commercial failure. The competition for “eye-balls”, i.e. users, has become intense and that competition is reflected in the effort expended in creating high-quality interface design and rich functionality. Even the well-established Internet players, like Yahoo and Google, have had to respond to these new developments and update their traditional offerings.

9. The rush to gather users to impress advertisers and potential buyers alike has led to other companies, like Writely and Zimbra, with web-based alternatives to many of the traditional desktop applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets, databases, project management and calendaring. Email has, of course, long been available as a Web-based service, highly prized by people on the move.

10. In short, the innovation initiative is passing from the traditional creators of large software applications with long release cycles to the provision of Web-based services which can evolve rapidly because they do not have to rely on local client software updates for functionality or revenue stream.

11. Web 2.0 is changing both the Web and software business models very fast and many of the large traditional software companies are scrambling to catch up with the new leading edge.

What is “Web 2.0”?

12. Whilst opinion as to what exactly constitutes “Web 2.0” differs in some details, the following general principles are fundamental:

12.1. The emphasis has shifted from software programs (whether locally installed or on network servers) to Web-based service provision – the concept of ‘software as a service’, instead of as a boxed product.
12.2. The software providing these services is constantly evolving – some sites release new versions daily or even hourly – and it is never ‘signed-off’ and finished in the traditional ‘product’ sense; leading to the concept of the ‘permanent beta’.
12.3. New Web technologies, such as AJAX (Advanced JavaScript and XHTML), have dramatically improved the interactivity and responsiveness of the user-experience, making possible intuitive interaction with complex service offerings yet without the need for traditional user support (training, manuals, etc). Techniques that were traditionally the preserve of desktop applications, such as drag and drop or dynamic interaction, can now be used in Web browsers.
12.4. New developments in browser rendering technology, such as the new version of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), have considerably enhanced the visual appearance and ergonomics of web-based applications.
12.5. The easier, better user interface brought about by these technologies has made possible the extraordinary success of Web sites fuelled by user-generated content. Sites have to be attractive and easy to use if they are to encourage the regular user participation on which they depend. Moreover, the competition between sites for new features means each new enhancement must be easily found and easy to use.

Why does Web 2.0 matter?

13. The consequences of the arrival of the Web 2.0 generation of services are:

13.1. Web 2.0 makes possible things that previously either could not be done in the Web environment or were so difficult to do or use as to be impractical. In other words, it opens up a whole new area of possibilities that were previously the sole preserve of desktop applications and which can be accessed from multiple locations using just a Web browser.
13.2. Web 2.0 dramatically ‘raises the bar’ in terms of appearance and functionality, not just for the dot-com companies offering competing web-based services but for all organisations with Web sites. Sites without the new technologies and techniques are rapidly starting to look and feel old-fashioned or even obsolete. As a result, the cost of developing Web sites that are appealing and engaging – and keeping them so – is rising significantly. Compelling content was always a requirement for competing Web sites seeking to attract and retain users. Compelling interaction has become the new battleground.
13.3. Web-based services are developing far more rapidly than desktop-based applications because they provide a much faster and easier route to market than traditional software distribution models; no application updates on the client devices are required (except for occasional browser updates and security fixes, which can be automated) and new versions can be deployed virtually instantly.
13.4. Combining Web 2.0 with mobile devices will accelerate the development of location based services, mobile search and digital convergence. The device itself can become part of the search, by providing location information.
13.5. Web 2.0 has coincided with the appearance of “mashups”, the dynamic integration of data from multiple sources into a unified presentation. The use of the Google maps service is a good example - someone in the USA took the published crime figures for city districts and did a mashup with the Google service to produce a map showing crime density. (Technically, mashups are not strictly Web 2.0 but tend to get lumped into it because they emerged at about the same time.)
13.6. In system design terms, the emphasis shifts from applications and operating systems to information and the users’ interactions with it. This, in fact, should always have been at the heart of good system architecture and design.

Putting it in the Parliamentary Context

14. Parliaments are not like commercial organisations, for all sorts of reasons. Web 2.0 may be transforming commercial Web company activities and, more slowly, internal and external corporate Web servers but how could it be applied usefully in the specialised environment of the UK Parliament?

15. Consideration of this has to start with the question, “What do Members want?” As the song in that old Martini advert went, the answer surely is “Any time, any place, anywhere”. Members would like to access to all their data and all the available services all the time, wherever they are. That’s one problem. Another problem arises when different individual Members or groups of Members want something different or when what they want is in only available as a proprietary, platform dependent application installed on one PC in one location.

16. The provision of services to constituency offices, Members’ homes and Members on the move further complicates the traditional approach to service provision. Remoting the entire Parliamentary network has the benefit of largely keeping the same services and look and feel, in the hope that this will simplify training and support, but the VPN approach may be the right answer to the wrong question. VPNs can be problematic, especially when running across different network carriers and national boundaries. The Web-at-large doesn’t use VPNs. Where secure communication is required, e.g. for online banking and making credit card payments, HTTPS (a secure version of the standard Web protocol) is used instead. This is a standard feature in all modern Web browsers.

17. Add in the problem of Party-provided applications, local “spot-fix” and personal preference software and the complexity and difficulty multiplies further. Achieving it all is hard enough but supporting it is even harder. The system becomes ‘brittle’, i.e. easily broken, making it very hard to support.

The user support issue

18. There can never be enough support for a system that is brittle by design. Providing more support staff or improving the response time in call centres is fixing the wrong problem. The real problem is why so many people are calling the help desk. Zero-intervention should be the goal, not more nationwide flying PICT-ets.

19. Users and IT departments can both be their own worst enemy. IT departments usually think the answer to management and support problems is tighter central control of users, equipment and facilities and seek to solve the problem by technical and administrative means. But, the more complex and tightly ‘locked down’ a system, the less flexible it is, the harder (and riskier) it becomes to upgrade and the more users look for ways to bypass its restrictions. Then, entrenched ‘them and us’ positions emerge, with each side thinking that the other doesn’t understand and is being deliberately difficult. Eventually, powerful users will break the central stranglehold and the cycle begins again.

20. Users also have to realise that every special case they plead is an additional complexity and support issue for the IT department. At a recent PITCOM meeting about getting value for money in IT projects, the speaker forcefully made the point that many Government IT projects failed because Departments continued to over-specify their requirements, attempted to automate outdated business processes and, generally, regarded themselves as ‘special’ so increasing costs unnecessarily and failing to capitalise on the benefits of COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) products. The MOD, especially, has long struggled with this issue.

21. Much technical innovation is now happening in consumer, rather than business, markets – think graphics, mobiles, digital convergence, web services. This will, inevitably, lead to constant user pressure for more and better services. Flexible service provision is how the dot-com “Fast Companies” do this. From the 90-day projects of the dot-com boom, to the “tiger team” one week projects of today, speed of response and rollout is what characterises the successful players.

22. In the Parliamentary context, striking a balance between lowest common denominator and highest individual plea is always going to be difficult but must be tackled to arrive at system specifications and service definitions that can actually be implemented and supported. A useful guiding principle for both sides can be compatibility not commonality. Commonality of equipment and software configuration is hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. The Web is the most successful example ever of the principle of compatibility over commonality. If sites like Yahoo and Google, with tens of millions of users, required each one of those users to have a specific hardware and software configuration, and had to maintain an asset register of that configuration, they would cease to exist, buried under their own administrative burden. It requires a shift in thinking from hardware and software to thinking about information services.

The dilemmas of storage

23. Discussion of information inevitably leads to the question of storage and, more importantly, information management. Again, there are wider issues here than those usually considered.

24. Storage is certainly now cheap, very cheap (e.g. a one terabyte redundant disk, gigabit network storage appliance, WiFi node and print server available in an IT supermarket for 999 Euros). But, storage cost alone isn’t the issue – managing, finding and retrieving the information in the storage is the real cost. Throwing more storage at the problem will not, alone, solve the information management issues.

25. Speed and reliability are, of course, fundamental requirements. If storage is not fast and demonstrably reliable, users will replicate needlessly ‘just in case’, so exacerbating the problem and creating an escalating demand for storage.

26. There are also hidden issues to do with information availability. Having reliable mass storage is of no use if the information cannot be found when needed or isn’t in the store in the first place. Data stored on individual PCs is at risk; people are too busy or too lazy to make backups. Locally installed applications may be faster but also are a single point of failure – even if the data is replicated it is often inaccessible if the application itself is not available because the PC has a fault.

27. The Web 2.0 approach to provision of office type services, like that for Web-based email, is to have all the information stored on the provider’s servers. A well-managed data centre can achieve very high reliability and availability standards (the goal being the “five nines”, i.e. 99.999% uptime), much higher than those of a desktop PC. Try to remember the last time Yahoo or Google was not working or lost your information and reflect on how many users they serve and how much data they manage, especially in their picture and video databases.

28. However, this does leave the problem of what to do when the information servers are inaccessible, due to network faults or Internet traffic overload, or when offline working is required (e.g. while travelling). However, very interesting new Web 2.0 techniques are emerging from some companies. Zimbra is trialling a two way sync of mail, calendar, contacts, and documents between offline stores and online Web database. If these ideas prove workable (there are others, like the Moxie rich text editor which uses Dojo Storage, and there will, certainly, be many more), they will go a long way towards making the Web 2.0 approach a more comprehensive solution.

Suggestions

29. Obviously, without a detailed study of the various user needs, current situation and legacy migration issues, suggestions made here can be only in broad terms. However, there are several areas where the use of Web 2.0 techniques could be of use in devising a new approach to the provision of ICT services to Members.

30. The basis for the new approach could be to decide a core ‘de minimis’ set of services, e.g. email, Vote Bundle, Hansard, annunciator, relevant Library services, and provide an integrated Web 2.0 environment (a “Parliamentarian’s Web Desktop”) to access them both within the parliamentary estate and at the other locations where Members and their staff operate, including while on the move, using the secure Web protocol (HTTPS).

31. A feature of browsers that often goes un-noticed is their ability to work with data from different sources and access several different services simultaneously. Having multiple browser windows or tabs open at the same time allows user interaction with different information services at the same time.

32. If all or, at least, most of the Members’ Parliamentary, Party and individual information service needs could be delivered via Web interfaces, the need for complex, fragile client software configurations would disappear, as would the dependence on the specific machine on which that software was installed. Failure of an individual PC would simply mean moving to another and logging in again.

33. What benefits would this approach bring? These could include:

33.1. It would provide the closest thing to “Any time, any place, anywhere” since the only requirement to use it would be a Web browser and an internet connection, whether fixed or mobile.
33.2. It could be deployed in parallel with some or all the existing traditional applications, so providing an alternative access means.
33.3. Because no local software installation is required, availability of the services depends only on access control. If Internet connectivity and a browser are already available, no site visit is required. The services can be made available very quickly to large numbers of new users, e.g. following a General Election. All that is needed is a means of delivering the necessary logins, passwords and (when necessary) access tokens.
33.4. Similarly, denial of the services also depends only on access control. Removal of access to services, e.g. at Dissolution, can be achieved quickly. If the local data replication technique, described above, or other “information only” access mechanisms are implemented, the denial of service could still leave access to and download of all of the Member’s information created up to the point of the Dissolution.
33.5. New features can be added quickly. ‘Current’ and ‘Next release’ and, even, ‘fallback’ versions can all exist in parallel.
33.6. A Web 2.0 approach makes it easier (but still not easy) to deliver the services to mobile devices, as only a Web browser (e.g. Opera Mobile or Mini) is required, but the physical issues, of course, remain.
33.7. If only a Web browser is required, the issue of software licence compliance is reduced to the operating system and the browser only. If Linux is used, there is no licence compliance requirement at all.
33.8. The Web Desktop could be made the only form of access to be supported outside the Parliamentary Estate, so considerably simplifying the provision of remote support.
33.9. Because customisation and personalisation are easy in a Web environment, different versions of the system could be offered to suit the varying needs of Members and staff. Furthermore, individual users could adjust the system to suit their needs for the tasks they perform most.

34. As when the Web first appeared, it is difficult to convey in writing alone how Web 2.0 might work and look to those who haven’t seen or used it. It is, perhaps, even harder to imagine how it might work in the specialised environment of the UK Parliament. A demonstrator project of the “Parliamentarians Web Desktop” would greatly assist informed debate and decisions about the use of Web 2.0 in future developments. Of course, being Web 2.0, it could be developed quickly, updated regularly and all done so at relatively low cost, compared to traditional enterprise-scale solutions.

Conclusions

35. Web 2.0 has, in little over a year, transformed the way in which users interact with information via the Web in dramatic and positive ways. Many of the services that have been developed so far could either have direct application in the service of Parliament or guide the development of services. Reliance on traditional applications needs to be reconsidered in the light of these developments, which continue to evolve at a remarkable pace.

36. Many of these new Web 2.0 developments could be employed to create a Web based system providing access to the main Parliamentary ICT services and provide facilities equivalent to those traditionally provided by local desktop applications, such as word processing. In time, techniques will probably emerge that would allow all services to be provided (or, at least, accessed) in this way.

37. If Parliament is to have a modern, efficient information system for Members, staff and citizens (“to maximise its internal efficiency and external effectiveness”), which is able to keep pace with rapid change and compare favourably with the best offerings on the Web, the advent of Web 2.0 cannot be ignored. Although it is not a panacea, Web 2.0 can and should have a place in the future Parliamentary information strategy.

Notes

• This paper represents solely the author’s views; not those of anyone in Parliament or the views of any third party.
• To aid clarity and succinct presentation, some technical simplifications have been made.
• This paper has concentrated on the provision of ICT services to Members but the use of Web 2.0 techniques are also applicable to Parliamentary Staff and, especially, to improving the “citizen-facing” information services, i.e. the parliament.uk Web site.
• It is not the intention of this paper to suggest that Web 2.0 techniques can be used to meet all of Members’ ICT requirements now but rather to challenge the thinking that desktop applications are the only way to do it and promote a more flexible approach, to which Web 2.0 is well-suited.
• The issues of security have been largely left to one side so as to allow the paper to concentrate on the key information issues. Security is, of course, a very important issue in the parliamentary context but there may be different ways of looking at the problem than a single sign-on to everything. (A discussion of the relative security merits of VPNs and HTTPS is outside the scope of this paper but, suffice it to say, HTTPS is much easier to deploy and manage since it is built into all Web browsers by default). A Web 2.0 approach could allow different granularities of access, depending on location and device, i.e. context. Instead of speaking about identity in context it may be helpful to turn this around and look on context as being part of your identity in any given instance. Your identity for a particular task, transaction or need, at a particular time and, maybe, in a particular place is therefore a combination of personal ID data and the data about these contexts. (This is explored in more detail in the author’s paper "Chips or Mash? Composite Identity in Context" prepared for the EURIM Personal Identity group, in June 2006)


Postscript
As of summer 2008, services to Members are still being provided by a 'corporate' type system and no development of a Web Desktop approach has begun.